No Budget Drama: A Tory party machine limbering up for an election

For all those hoping for high drama today, from the Tory backbenchers clamouring for tax cuts to the journalists baying for juicy news lines, there will have been disappointment.

After the disaster that was Liz Truss’s mini-budget little more than six months ago, this budget was all about stability and delivery - with a focus on trying to get growth in the economy, mainly through business incentives and getting people back into work (or staying in work).

But despite the lack of drama, be in no doubt that this was a highly political budget - with measures intended to steal a march on the Labour party, and a focus on preparing the ground for a big pre-election budget next year.

And with the discipline necessary at this point in the electoral cycle, the Chancellor very deliberately – and repeatedly – referenced the first three of the Prime Ministers five priorities. Namely to halve inflation, reduce national debt, and grow the economy.

Taking each in turn he set out how “the plan is on track”, and with one eye on the chaos of Truss – and one on the threat posed by Labour – he was at pains to frame this Government as one that is competent and delivers.

The Downing Street view is that while Labour may think they have an unassailable lead in the polls, if the Conservatives can get to next summer with an economy ticking up, then it’s all to play for: “it’s all about growth” they say.

As well as business incentives such as a new policy of “full expensing” to encourage investment, and the introduction of twelve new investment zones, there was a recognition that gaps in the workforce need to be filled for the Government’s growth ambitions to be successful. That’s why we saw policies aimed not only at getting people into work, but keeping them there: a £4bn expansion of free childcare for one- and two-year olds in England to support parents to stay in work, and a decision to raise the lifetime allowance for pension savings from £1.07m to £1.8m in an effort to ensure that people in professional occupations aren’t perversely incentivised to retire.

And linked to the focus on growth there was the announcement of two trailblazer devolution budgets for Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. These will include 100% business rates retention and ‘multi year settlements’ (i.e. single funding pots) which give mayors substantially more control over their budgets. This is a significant move that will be chalked up as a demonstrable delivery on the levelling up agenda.

Finally there was some recognition of the strain that the current “cost of living crisis” is placing on families, with confirmation that the energy price guarantee would be extended for another 3 months. And this is where the politics behind the policies was most apparent. Alongside the childcare announcement, the intention here was to challenge Labour’s ambitions to be seen as the party of the family.

Labour believe that while Workington Man was 2019’s symbolic voter, a key target is now middle-aged women who are squeezed between childcare costs, social care and a demanding career. They believe that positioning themselves as the party of the family is the way to reach this group. Indeed their party chair Anneliese Dodds recently launched the party’s drive to attract new female voters with a keynote speech to the Women’s Institute. It’s hard not to see today’s childcare announcements as a riposte to this threat.

On the back of victories on Northern Ireland, and the introduction of an illegal immigration bill that sets a trap for Labour while thrilling the right of the Tory party, this was a performance reflective of a Government growing in confidence - and a Tory party machine limbering up for an election. Next autumn may feel a long time away for many of us, but be in no doubt that the campaign has started.